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What should Chinese filmmakers do to win more US audiences?

Actress Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Although the Chinese film industry has grown rapidly at home over the past decade, it is still “too young” to make an impact in the US market, a senior film marketing manager said recently in Beijing.

Since the 2002 Chinese film industry reform, the annual Chinese film production has increased from less than 100 to over 600, and the box office take has increased to nearly 30 billion yuan in 2014, from no more than 1 billion at the beginning, said Cai Fuchao, head of China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, at the recent bimonthly session of the Standing Committee of the 12th National People's Congress. Chinese box office has gained over 33 billion yuan in the first nine months of 2015, and the number of screens in China has increased to 29,000 from less than 2,000, he noted.

However, the Chinese film makers who want to gain more share of the US market will still need more time and efforts because they have to first and foremost win their audiences who have different cultural backgrounds.

At the beginning of this year, the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture (AICCC) released a report on how Chinese films were received overseas in 2014. It shows that foreign audiences tend to watch Chinese films “to seek cultural novelty”, and that Kongfu and mythological movies are representatives of Chinese films on the global stage.

Also, “foreign audiences tend to watch Chinese films through free video channels and free websites, instead of going to the cinema. While Oceania has the largest number of audiences going to cinema, that of the United States is the lowest,” Huang Huilin, the director of the AICCC, had said then.

The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by An Lee in the US is still seen as a good example for Chinese filmmakers who are eyeing the American market. In 2001, it became the first foreign film in the US market to make record box office revenue of 1 billion dollars, surpassing the 57.6 million-dollar box office by Life is Beautiful, according to

The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is attributed to three factors in general: promotion, easily understandable script, and martial art, according to Li Chow, who has been the managing director of Sony Pictures Entertainment China since 1996 and was also a member of the promotion team of the film in the US. But most importantly, it needs to be a good story.

“It made money mainly because the way we promoted,” she said, “To promote a foreign language film in the US takes a lot of time, because it’s not a subject people know. So you need to do it slowly.”

What they did first is to put the film in the universities, and made limited screenings for people who were interested in the subject. They got very good reviews then, and when they released the film to broader public two weeks later, there were many people who already knew about it through the reviews, she said.

The other reason that the movie worked, she said, was because the script was really well written. “It’s very straightforward, and there’s nothing you wouldn’t understand.”

In contrast, an example of failure is also a film by An Lee, Lust, Caution, featuring actress Tang Wei and actor Tony Leung (Liang Chaowei), which gained only 4.4 million dollars while it made 44 million in Asia.

“Maybe because the film is more like talking about Japanese war. But American audiences may not know about Japanese invasion, they do not relate to that. And also, of course, Americans in general just don’t read subtitles. So getting into the US market is difficult,” Li said.

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